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Mischief Night: New Jersey's special pre-Halloween holiday celebrating vandalism

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Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

For many Americans, the night of October 30 is just like any other night. But in a tiny pocket of our vast country, a place known as New Jersey, there are people preparing for the storied tradition that is "Mischief Night."

Dark magic happens on Mischief Night. And when suburban New Jerseyans awaken on the morning of October 31, the tranquil beauty of their towns is often horribly marred with ropes of toilet paper, splattered eggs, and soap scum.

Here's a brief primer on the significance of tonight's holiday:

What is Mischief Night?

"Mischief Night" — also known as "Devil's Night" and "Cabbage Night" — is celebrated the night before Halloween. As the name contends, it usually involves some kind of mischief, usually in the form of pranks like egging or toilet-papering someone's house, or rubbing soap on their windows.

Why don't I know about Mischief Night?

Short answer: you're probably not from the New Jersey/Philadelphia area.

Mischief Night is a regional holiday. And there are very few regions in the United States that celebrate it. Joshua Katz, now a staffer at the Upshot, put together some maps during his time as a PhD student at North Carolina State University that illustrate different results from a Harvard dialect survey last year. One of the questions asked was what one would call the night before Halloween.

Most people who answered that question thought nothing of it and marked "I have no word for this." But respondents from the New Jersey area were consistent in calling it Mischief Night:

Joshua Katz/ NC State University

Out of the 10,640 people who answered the survey, around 10 percent or so identified the night before Halloween as "Mischief Night," 11 percent referred to it as "Devil's Night," and 2 percent marked down "Cabbage Night," hopefully while giggling to themselves. Devil's Night appears to be a Michigan thing, while Cabbage Night floats around parts of Vermont and New York.

How did Mischief Night start?

There are a couple of ideas, and they're by no means exclusive. The first theory, as The Guardian points out, is that the tradition came from 18th Century England when a school headmaster encouraged mischief to be had:

Records go back to 1790, when fellows of St John's College, Oxford, studied a headmaster who had encouraged a school play which ended in "an Ode to Fun which praises children's tricks on Mischief Night in most approving terms".

Another competing theory is that this holiday is actually a repercussion from the Great Depression (Black Tuesday occurred on October 29), and the vandalism directly correlates to the economic turmoil of that day.

What about Devil's Night and Cabbage Night?

Though they have different names, Devil's Night and Cabbage Night are both referring to to the same tradition as Mischief Night. Devil's Night is a little bit easier to explain, since ostensibly people do bad things on Devil's Night, and the Devil likes bad things.

Cabbage Night, on the other hand, makes less sense, mainly because cabbages are not usually vehicles of violence or vandalism. ("Do you intend to do harm with that cabbage, sir?" said no one ever.)

It turns out that Cabbage Night got its name from people leaving out rotten vegetables on people's stoops and porches and smearing rotten vegetables on windows. A more wholesome, vegetable-oriented kind of mischief, it seems.

Do people still celebrate Mischief Night?

Yes, unfortunately, there are still people who think that vandalizing things and being annoying is a fun thing to do. That's why towns in New Jersey like Long Branch, Sea Bright, and Oceanport have all implemented curfews.

The bright side is that the majority of people in America don't recognize Mischief Night and even fewer recognize Cabbage Night. Your vegetables are safe!